We’re all thinking a lot about our breath these days. About whether we’re breathing in COVID-19 virus particles—or, God forbid, unknowingly breathing them out. About where we breathe and how we breathe and whether we should cover our breath with a mask. We’re thinking about who is breathing in the space around us and about the potential danger of our singing breath.
And in the midst of this pandemic that threatens our ability to breathe and makes our breath threatening, we hear the heart-breaking cry of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” We heard these words, of course, in July of 2014 from Eric Garner as he, like Floyd, was being murdered by a police officer. But somehow, in this time when the world is staggered by a virus that can steal our breath, this cry sounds even more horrifying: “I can’t breathe.”
We are all encouraged to stay home when we can and wear masks in public as a way to help each other stay healthy—to help each other keep breathing. But even simpler than staying home, even easier and less inconvenient than wearing as mask, is the directive to not press your knee into someone’s throat until they can’t breathe. It really shouldn’t ‘be so hard for us to not kill each other.
Our struggle these days to breathe shines a brutal light on the reality of racism in the United States. Because of economic disparities, job inequities, and unequal access to health care, people of color are more likely than white people to have their breath stopped by COVID-19. So, too, are people of color more likely to have their breath stopped by police.
Breath, these days, feels like a luxury. A dangerous privilege.
Which is why I am deeply grateful that the Christian liturgical year is carrying us with annoying constancy toward Pentecost.
As we read about the wind—the breath—of the Holy Spirit rushing through the earliest believers, we remember that God’s breath is the source of ours. As we read that they all began to speak in other languages, we remember that the purpose of our God-given breath is to connect us to each other—not to divide us.
As we read how Peter addressed the crowd to defend his community, we remember that our breath is not exclusively an agent of disease and death. Our God-given breath can also be used in life-giving ways: to speak truth, to offer hope, to work toward a world where everyone can breathe freely.